The Ghost in Our Kitchen

I see what we've lost since my mother-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, while my son sees his grandmother and brings her back to life

Jeanne on the occasion of her 75th birthday.

It's Easter Sunday afternoon; cool with the sun peeking in and out of the clouds all day. Our home is quiet; the silence broken with the periodic, jellybean-fueled shouts from Tom and James, my 17- and 12-year-old sons, who are playing video games. My husband is watching some golf tournament tucked away in his office, while the ham baking in the oven fills the kitchen with its smoky deliciousness. My mother-in-law, Jeanne, is visiting for the weekend. We haven't seen her since Christmas. She's been working on a jigsaw puzzle for hours now, sorting pieces, pushing them around and talking to herself.

She does that now, talks to herself.

"That's it."

"There we go."


"That's right."

"They're verbal cues and are common with Alzheimer's patients. They help Jeanne order her thoughts and keep her on track," her doctor told us.

I watch Jeanne from my desk in the kitchen, glancing over to the family room, where she seems content enough to move puzzle pieces around. I don't know what to say to her anymore. Conversation was easy back then, before this. This once vibrant, gracious woman with whom I spent hours talking about books, faith, gardening, children, feminism, cooking and writing seems a stranger to me. A mother of five sons, she used to call me the "daughter of her heart."

I make my way to the fridge to pull out the makings for dinner: greens for salad, fingerling potatoes and asparagus for roasting. Immediately, Jeanne appears at my side.

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"What can I do to help?"

I ask her to cut the potatoes to be roasted. That's what the nurses in her assisted living facility told us to do.

"Keep her engaged," they said.

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"Here's a roasting pan, Jeanne."

While I prep the asparagus, Tom walks into the kitchen, holding two old glass bottles.

"Hey, Nana. I want to show you something."

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"What do you have there, Tom?" Jeanne asks, as she puts down the knife.

I look over at the pile of potatoes that she had put in a pot of water to be boiled. I stifle my annoyed sigh and push down my frustrated irritation that Jeanne couldn't even do this, this simple task that I had only moments before asked her to do. I drain the potatoes and set them to dry on paper towels, while Jeanne and Tom sit together at the counter.

"Is there anything wrong, Chris?" she asks.

"No, not at all, I'm just drying the potatoes so I can roast them."

Tom's eyes met mine. I turn away, the red creeping up my neck. I'm doing a terrific job today, teaching my son how to be a graceless and condescending host, how to lie to someone's face. Someone we love.

"I found these bottles while walking in the woods last fall. They were sticking out of the mud. I looked them up on the Internet," he said, holding one up. "I think this one is about 100 years old. See, it's a half-pint bottle from an old tavern in Bernardsville, probably from the early 1900s. This one is a beer bottle, I think, from a brewery in Newark. I tried to clean them as best I could."

"It's hard to clean old glass, especially if it's been buried in the mud. You know, Tom, when Granddad and I started going to the Cape before you were born, we stayed in Chatham. I would walk out on the mudflats at low tide and find all sorts of things—old bottles, shards of pottery, broken dishes—and bring them home and clean them."

Who is this specter, the ghost of Jeanne past, in my kitchen?

I hadn't heard these stories in years, and I know Jeanne was recounting them perfectly because I was there. I walked the flats with her and picked up my own shards of pottery and dishes that are mixed in with the shells I dump into a bowl every summer. I told the kids these stories because they asked about the pottery mixed in with the shells at some point. Hadn't I? Yet, Tom is entranced, as if he'd never heard them.

"Where do you think this stuff comes from, Nana?"

I slow my hurried chopping and doing and resenting. With patience and wisdom far beyond his 17 years, Tom draws Jeanne into the now. Tom doesn't see a ghost in our kitchen. He sees his grandmother. He sees what his parents, at 51, have not, so mired in our grief over what we're losing.

"Well, years ago, people dug trash pits in their yards for their waste, or maybe, someone tossed a broken plate or cup from a fishing boat. Who knows? I'll have to show you all my old bottles when you come to the Cape this summer, Tom."

"I'd like that, Nana," Tom replied, as he walked off, back to the video games.

"What can I do to help?" Jeanne asked.

"Make the salad. You always make the best salad."

"I miss you, Chris. You're so dear to me, daughter of my heart. We must spend time together at the Cape this summer."

Jeanne turns toward me and pulls me into a hug. Time stops as we hold each other.

As I glance over Jeanne's shoulder at the counter, the sunlight bounces off those old glass bottles, pulled from the mud by Tom, who took the time to see, to care and to bring them back to life.

"I'd like that, Jeanne. I'd like that very much."